This book began as a bet between a father and son: could Richard White, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and renowned historian of the American West, tell a complete history of California through photographs taken by his son, the photographer Jesse Amble White? As he tells it, no - Richard White lost that bet to Jesse. But the resulting book they created together, California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History (Norton, 2020), is nonetheless an engrossing read. Taking Jesse's photographs as touchstones for the meeting places between myth and history, White tracks the history of California through the moment of Sir Francis Drake's landing in the 16th century (though where exactly that landing took place is a matter of some debate), all the way to the water crises engulfing the state now in the early 21st century. Along the way, Richard and Jesse both show and tell stories of Indigenous California, of settlement and agriculture, and of research libraries blocking entry to sensitive material. If California history is American history in microcosm, California Exposures argues that history needs to be seen to be believed.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.